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The Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS

The H-body Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS, sold from 1985 to 1989, were well-tuned variants of the basic extended K-car platform. Unlike the Dynasty/LeBaron, these cars felt tight and cornered surprisingly well, winning the hearts of many Americans (and some Europeans). Dodge promoted it as “the sports car for kids with kids of their own,” pointing out the “affordable sports car” feel, performance, and cornering.

1987 dodge lancer

U.S.A.C. tests0-50SlalomSkidpadBraking
Chrysler LeBaron GTS5.63 sec6.20 sec.861 g136 ft
Mercedes 190E6.83 sec6.35 sec.829 g138 ft
BMW 528e7.14 sec6.56 sec.814 g140 ft

Suspension components were retuned to make the car more responsive and precise; the firm suspension provided a better feel for the road than the “cushy” ride in traditional American sedans, but didn't punish the rider, keeping bumps in check. The Chrysler LeBaron GTS and Dodge Lancer were quiet and comfortable, despite chassis dynamics equaling more expensive import sedans.

Internally called H-bodies, the Lancer and LeBaron GTS were four-door hatchbacks; the suspension was based on the Daytona, with the basic K-car body lengthened to create more interior space.

The Lancer name had been used on Dodge's version of the compact Valiant in 1961-62; Mitsubishi had used it in Japan since the early 1970s. The LeBaron GTS name was chosen to match the lesser K-based LeBaron sedan; the GTS would bring recognition to this model and more allure to the other model.

chrylser lebaron gts

The Lancer/LeBaron GTS used the usual-by-now Chrysler front semi-independent iso-strut design and trailing arm rear suspension. The basic Road Touring suspension was tuned to in-city use; the Sport Handling package was tighter. Some changes from lower cars included gas shocks, five lugs on each wheel, and superior tires.

The suspension included large front and rear sway bars (solid and tubular, respectively); dual path upper strut mounts; a constant camber, trailing arm beam rear axle with coil springs; and a fast-ratio power steering gear. Standard tires were 185/70R14 Goodyear Vector or Michelin XA4. Spring rates in the standard suspension were 85 pounds per inch in front and 160 in the rear.

cutaway dodge lancer

The Sport Handling package added higher-control front struts, rear shocks, and springs, and 14-inch Goodyear Eagle GT tires. Sport Handling II added longer jounce bumpers, restricted steering, and 15 inch Shelby-style cast aluminum road wheels with Eagle GT tires. Spring rates on either Sport Handling package were 120 lb./in. in front and 200 in the rear.

Burton Bouwkamp wrote,

We had to delay the “H” Body [Lebaron GTC and Dodge Lancer] more than six months when Hal Sperlich, my boss, saw the latest Toyota and Nissan Leopard cars at the Tokyo Auto Show. He decided to move the glass planes outboard by 3/8" to make the side glass more flush with exterior door and quarter sheet metal. That involved a complete redesign of the glass drop mechanism and door/window seals, as well as exterior sheet metal changes.

Both versions were available in two trim levels; for Dodge, these were Lancer and Lancer ES, and for Chrysler, Highline and Premium. Almost all of them had front bucket seats with a center console (buyers could, but tended not to, choose a bench-type front seat).

1985 dodge lancer

CAD - CATIA Aries designThe Lancer and LeBaron GTS were developed using computer-aided design and engineering.

They had quad halogen headlamps and an “aerowrapped” windshield at a high angle to reduce drag. The windshield and liftback glass was flush-mounted to reduce wind resistance and noise. Door handles were recessed and semi-flush for the same reason. The top of the door panels projected into the roof, concealing drain troughs.

Despite all that, the Lancer ended up with a drag coefficient (cD) of 0.37 – better than that of the Sundance that was to follow, but not even in the same class as the later Neon. Chrysler appeared to be proud of it at the time, despite their 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona’s easily beating it.

dodge lancer

The 2.2 liter single-overhead-cam four-cylinder in-line engine was used, with either a single fuel injector or with a turbocharger and four fuel injectors. The single-injector (TBI, or throttle body injector) powerplant produced 99 horsepower; the turbocharger and multiple port injection raised that to 146 horsepower. In both cases, the engine had more torque than horsepower, and could be purchased with either a close-ratio five-speed manual overdrive transaxle or an optional three-speed automatic.

The turbocharged engine could get better mileage than the much lower power TBI version, thanks to the multiple port injection; even in EPA figures, the five-speed turbo did about as well as the single-injector automatic. In 1986, the 2.5 liter four-cylinder (with 100 horsepower and single throttle-body fuel injector) became available as an option to add a bit more low-end torque; it continued through to the end.

The turbo car, at launch, added a computer boost control system, which could allow ten second bursts of 9 psi boost, rather than the usual limit of 7.2 psi, without letting the turbocharger exceed 1650°F.

When launched in 1985, Lancer ES / LeBaron GTS was one of the quickest sedans in America, with Car & Driver reporting 0-60 times of 8.1 seconds and quarter-mile of 16.3 @ 85 mph (turbo, five speed); they said it had minimal turbo lag over 2,500 rpm, with “impressively smooth” throttle response. They also praised its track and highway performance, both cornering and ride, and noted the “proper” dead pedal and well designed controls. (The automatic sapped power — with the same engine and on the same track, C&D reported 0-60 in 9.3 and a quarter mile of 16.9 @ 83.)

Galvanized metals were used extensively, with a urethane protective coating on the lower body side panels to resist chipping; they were covered by a five year/50,000-mile corrosion warranty. The new facility at Sterling Heights (Michigan) was kept clean; everyone entering the paint area passed through an air sealed chamber and foot pond to remove loose dust or dirt from clothing and shoes. Workers wore gowns and surgical caps over their regular clothing. Throughout the facility there were 113 small ponds, or “lagoons,” where running water attracted particles from the air.

2006 dodge lancer

Ray’s Lancer, above, is in the 200,000 Mile Club. It’s a 2.2 turbo automatic with a rebuilt transmission and new cylinder head. With the original paint and catalytic converter, it has never failed inspection.

The 550,000-square-foot facility used a 10-stage phosphate pre-paint system, an eight-stage uniprime system, two lines for color application by high-voltage electrostatic reciprocators, turbobell sprayers, four ovens with radiant heat and convection heat zones, and 26 miles of stainless steel piping.

The Lancer was fairly light on its feet at 2,600-2,750 pounds (1,179 kg), but it felt solid. The weight distribution was 63/37, front/rear. The standard stereo was an AM/FM electronically-tuned stereo radio; a cassette system was available along with the AM/stereo, FM/stereo, electronically-tuned radio with cassette player, five-channel graphic equalizer, and joystick controlled speakers. The latter was useful when one wanted to quickly divert sound to one speaker, but tended to require too much attention when making small adjustments.

When driving a 180,000-mile 1989 LeBaron GTS 2.5 turbo in the 1990s, we were surprised by the cushy, quiet interior, the capable cornering, and the pleasant acceleration, which was smoother than we expected. It was indeed a good car to drive.

For the final year, the Chrysler version became simply “LeBaron” because the K-based LeBaron four door was gone, and the former GTS Premium became the LeBaron GTS. The Lancer Shelby continued into the 1989 model year with the intercooled 2.2 Turbo II. The “plain” 2.2 turbocharged motor was replaced in 1989 by the 2.5 turbocharged motor; neither was intercooled, and the main advantage of the 2.5 was better off-the-line performance (without needing to load the engine) and smoother acceleration which befitted a car of the Lancer/GTS’ feel and class.

lebaron GTS

Several things led to the demise of the H-bodies. Americans never seemed to catch on to the idea of a big four door hatchback; the hatchback was, to Americans, an economy car. The AA-body launched in 1989 (Dodge Spirit / Plymouth Acclaim) and 1990 (Chrysler LeBaron) would be Chrysler's main midsized sedan. Also, the styling of the H bodies was used, almost exactly, on the early Sundance/Shadow P bodies, which were smaller, had firmer suspensions, and sold at a considerably lower price point. These entry level cars were too close in looks to the high-end LeBaron GTS, which was also too close to the Dodge Lancer.

Finally, when Chrysler bought AMC from Renault, Chrysler agreed to sell a minimum number of cars of AMC/Renault design, to purchase components from Renault, and not to replace existing AMC/Renault models with Chrysler models. The former AMC brand would be renamed Eagle and target the Euro-sedan market, which was what the Lancer and LeBaron GTS were created for. The AMC/Renault-designed Premier would take over that spot, and be marketed as a Dodge Monaco in 1990 to achieve the needed sales.

Today, not too many of these exist, but they have not gained collector status. A Shelby version, or well appointed Lancer ES or LeBaron GTS model, might be one to hang on to, but since the Lancer name was not used for long - and since the LeBaron name was only briefly applied to a car of this type - collector status may not arrive for many years.

Shelby Lancer

shelby lancer

In 1987, a high-performance Shelby-badged model was added; it had a Shelby motor, using the Chrysler Turbo II induction system on the Turbo I block, producing 175 horsepower, but without quite the durability of the full Chrysler treatment. The turbocharger used an 11.5 x 6.25 x 3 inch aluminum air-to-air intercooler, capable of cooling the air down by a full 100° Farenheit, with a maximum boost of 12 psi.

It had a rear, roof-mounted spoiler, and ground effects along with the increased performance. Shelby used Monroe Formula GP gas sport struts with coilover springs; front swaybars were 1 1/16”, rears were 1 1/8”. Front brakes were 10.1” x 0.94” vented discs, while the rears were 10.6” solid discs. Quick-ratio (14:1) power steering was used, and the pedals were replaced for heel/toe capability if manual transmissions were ordered.

This model was not at all popular despite quite good acceleration and ground-holding, possibly because those who would think of buying a Lancer would probably not want such a harsh ride. It was also far from the GLHS cars, with their harsh ride and low tolerance of any road problems; and much pricier, at roughly $17,000 plus destination (that’s $32,551 in 2014, adjusted for inflation).

shelby lancer interior

stereoThe Shelby Lancer, based on the high-end Lancer/LeBaron GTS, was loaded with luxury interior touches like power windows, locks, and driver's seat, air conditioning, warning chimes (instead of buzzers), a full-length console, lighting package, thermometer and compass, dual road lights, message center, remote control mirrors, tilt-wheel, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The stereo was top of the line, with a Pioneer 120 watt CD player, 9-band graphic equalizer, two power amps, ten speakers, remote control for the rear seats, and anti-theft coding capability.

Bill Cuttita wrote:

Originally intended to be a subtle charcoal gray color, supply problems between Chrysler and Shelby forced it into the bold Graphic Red with black graphics. Based on the Lancer ES, 400 were produced with a manual transmission and cloth interior, and 380 were built with an automatic transmission and leather interior, costing an extra $1,000 MSRP. A handful of special-order cars had mix-and-match interiors and drivetrains, but were not available to the general public. All had four-wheel disc brakes (converted from the Daytona CS package), Monroe FormulaGP struts and shocks, 15 x 6.5-inch Shelby CSS mesh-spoke pattern cast aluminum wheels with 205/60VR 15 "Gatorbacks," larger swaybars, urethane bushings, performance-tuned springs, driving lights integrated into the blacked-out grille, trunklid spoiler, and a 10 speaker Pioneer DEX77 1 20 watt compact disc sound system with nine-band graphic equalizer, antitheft coding capability, and rear seat remote control.

The 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds, 15.7 seconds in the quarter-mile and .85g on the skid pad was terrific for a family-type sedan, but the car was not a hit in the showrooms.

turbo engineFor 1988, Dodge sold the Lancer Shelby as an upgrade to the Lancer ES with Turbo II (manual) or Turbo I (automatic), the Shelby Lancer exterior goodies, Shelby swaybars and springs (but not brakes), color-keyed Pacifica wheels, and a rooftop air deflector, just like your mom's old Fury station wagon. The Lancer Shelby was sold in red, white, and black. Less than 300 were sold that year, and then they were discontinued.

Shelby’s advertisements compared the Lancer favorably to the Mercedes 190 (2.3 engine), Audo Turbo Quattro, and BMW 535i.

For more by Bill, click here.

1985-86 Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS specifications

Lancer dimensions

LeBaron GTS dimensions

Outside Inches mm   Inside Inches mm
Wheelbase 103.1 2618   Front Headroom 38.3 972
Overall Length 180.4 4581   Rear Headroom 37.9 963
Overhang Front 40.5 1029   Front legroom (MTX) 41.1 1044
Overhang Rear 36.8 935   Front legroom (ATX) 42.2 1072
Overall Width 68.3 1736   Rear legroom 36.8 935
Overall Height MVMA 53.0 1345   Front shoulder 56.1 1426
Front track 57.6 1464   Rear shoulder 56.0 1423
Rear track 57.2 1453   Knee Room 1.7 43
Frontal Area (base) 21.3 ft2   Front hip 51.6 1310
Ground Clearance 4.9” 126.0   Rear hip 51.9 1318


Item Description
Coefficient of drag .37 (base car)
Brake system Vacuum power assisted
Front brakes Discs, vented 10.2" x 0.94"
Rear breaks Drums, self adjusting 8.0" x 1.28"
Standard Wheels Base: 14"x 5.5" steel with wheel cover.
ES: 14"x 5.5" styled-steel with trim rings, unique hub and chrome nuts
Optional Wheels 14"x 5.5" cast aluminum; 15"x 6" Shelby-style cast aluminum
Standard Tires P185/70 R14 black sidewall (29 psi)
Optional Tires P185/70 R14 narrow whitewall; P195/70 R14 Eagle GT (standard, ES);
P205/60 R15 Eagle GT (all 29 psi)
Steering Rack and Pinion, power assisted
Turns, lock to lock 2.2
Turning Circle 36.2 feet outside curb to curb (standard tires, steering)
Optional Fast ratio with 2.0 turns, lock to lock (Only with 205/60 R15 Tire)
Turning circle 42.9 feet outside curb to curb (optional tires, steering)
Interior Volume 114.6 cubic feet (EPA volume index)
Cargo - Seats Up 18.3 cubic feet
Cargo - Rear Seats Down 42.0 cubic feet
EPA Volume Index 116.0


1985 Engine 2.2 TBI 2.2 Turbo I
Displacement 2213 cc/135 CID 2213 cc
Compression ratio 9.0: 1 8.2: 1
Horsepower 99 @ 5600 146 @ 5200
Torque (ft/lb) 121 @ 3200 168 @ 3600
Bore/Stroke 3.44" x 3.62" 3.44" x 3.62"
Coolant Capacity 8.5L (9.0 qts.) 8.5L (9.0 qts.)
Fuel Recommended Unleaded (87 octane) Premium (91 octane)
Manual mileage 23/34 21/29
Automatic mileage 23/27 20/23

Gear ratios Manual Automatic
1st 3.29 2.69
2nd 2.0S 1.55
3rd 1.45 1. 00
4th 1. 04 --
5th 0.72 --
Overall Top Gear Ratio 2.57 3.02
MPH /1000 RPM (top gear) 27 23 (Neglecting torque converter slip)

1985 Dodge Lancer and Chrysler LeBaron GTS standard features

The Lancer ES added:

A side range of single colors were available, along with two-tone schemes including:

Optional packages on Lancer included lighting, luxury equipment, popular equipment, sport-handling, and turbo-sport. The lighting and sport-handling packages were standard on ES, which offered all Lancer package as well as Electronics Feature I and II.

Power options included the driver’s seat, locks, and windows.

Comfort and convenience items included bi-level air conditioning, cruise control, tilt wheel, rear defroster, leather seats, illuminated entry, intermittent wipers, rear wiper/washer, sunroof, console with armrest, floor mats, sound insulation, and tinted glass. Other options included undercoating and a 500 amp battery.

dodge lancer

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